By Denise Baden
I’m a green activist, eco-fiction author and Professor of Sustainable Practice at the University of Southampton with a background in psychology. Like many of you, I spend my time trying to work out how we can save our beautiful planet, change behaviours and persuade governments and businesses to step up and do what it takes. Several years ago, as a result of much research, I came to the conclusion we were doing it all wrong. Firstly, we were preaching to the converted, and secondly, we were mistaken in equating raising awareness with effective action.
As an academic, I love a 2x 2 matrix so I compiled this as a way to categorise typical responses to the climate and biodiversity crisis.
Take a moment to consider where you fall. If you’re reading this, then I suspect you may be in the top right quadrant — of burnout. My work over the past ten years has been trying to target each quadrant in turn to get us all into the bottom right quadrant of calm, effective action. My research has covered numerous contexts to explore what can get us there:
- How readers respond to eco-fiction (catastrophic focus vs solution focus)
- How people respond to the news (typical negative news vs constructive journalism);
- Business ethics education (student responses to cautionary tales vs positive role models)
- Sustainable consumption choices
The most influential and researched theory of behaviour is the Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen, 1985) which proposes that behaviour is driven by attitudes (informed by knowledge and beliefs), social norms (what everyone else does) and perceived behavioural control (can we do it, will we make a difference?)
Most climate change communications focus on raising awareness of the problems. However, research consistently shows that the real drivers of behaviours are social norms and feelings of agency. In fact, raising awareness can backfire — scaring people into action works for some, but it may scare them into voting for populist leaders, or into their own protective bunker. My research also shows that catastrophic stories lead many people to go into avoidance or denial or a state of passive despair. It can also lead to eco-anxiety — an increasingly reported problem. Knowing there is a problem, without feeling empowered to address it is like revving an engine when not in gear — lots of noise and smoke but no forward movement.
A related issue is that many communications only reach those who already care. Only those who already care about sustainability take my courses, only readers who care about the climate read cli-fi etc. Hence I’ve sought ways to engage the bottom left quadrant — the passively complicit.
I was inspired to become a greeny by reading a work of fiction Ben Elton’s Stark, back in the 1990s. The way he deftly wove in green tips among the adventure and comedy made me realise that fiction can be a way to engage the mainstream. As a result I set up the free series of Green Stories competitions in 2018 to encourage writers to embed green solutions (not problems) into stories aimed at mainstream readers, a kind of product-placement but sneaking in green role models, values, practices etc. One route is to present a positive vision of what a sustainable society might look like, showcasing transformative solutions suggested on our website. For example:
- Changing our metric of success from the GDP which measures mostly consumption, to a metric such as the well-being index would shift attention towards sustainable policies rather than short term economic gains at the expense of a healthy eco-system.
- Shifting from a culture of ownership — buy, use, dispose — to a sharing economy, allows greater equity and access to resources at much reduced resource costs and planetary impact. For example, almost all of what we own isn’t being used. It’s estimated for example that the typical drill, is used for an average of 8 minutes a year. A library of things or shared shed, would allow everyone access at much reduced environmental impact.
- Personal carbon allowances or carbon credit cards would drive sustainability innovations across the board and enable a more equitable and rapid transition to a net zero economy.
Another tactic suggested by my research is to create characters in a mainstream genre that readers can identify with and can role-model green behaviours. For example, the heroine in a romance could go to a fashion swap for her outfit to her big date, the brave hero could drive an EV or cycle.
I found however, that despite continued exhortations to focus on solutions, 90% of entrants wrote stories that just raised awareness. Many had characters taking on evil loggers, but who doesn’t know deforestation is an issue? On its own, awareness does nothing to address the problem. Much more effective would be a story showing characters enjoying plant-based diets, upcycling, or campaigning against companies that engaged in deforestation etc.
In frustration, and inspired by a local green garden consultant who chucked in his job to help people make their gardens wildlife friendly, I wrote my own rom-com Habitat Man and used the plot of a body in the garden and romance to smuggle in green solutions. In the gardens with the love interest, the readers are engaged by seeing the romance play out. Similarly, in the chapter with Dawn the Polyamorist, I cover home composting, but the reader is hooked, waiting for Dawn to make a move. In the scenes with the Wizard of Woolston, Tim suggests a pond to attract frogs and bats, but the reader turns the pages in anticipation of some wizardry. In another garden, there’s the mystery of the body he accidentally dug up to keep the reader’s interest. Having a body naturally results in the need for a coffin and a burial, enabling me to promote the idea of green funerals. Preliminary results from an ongoing study into readers’ responses to Habitat Man indicates that fiction really can change behaviour. Highlights for me are the reader who said she’d changed her will to specify a natural burial, and a reader who’d bought a composting toilet for his garden.
While these projects have helped to generate more positive role models, there are few green role models on our screens. We have to go back to the 1970s to the Good Life to find green characters who are lovable rather than preachy and irritating. The only other character suggested was Jack Reacher — he kills people, but he rides on public transport and shops in thrift shops!
Fictional role models affect our values, aspirations and behaviour on an unconscious level and therefore can be very powerful — for better or worse. So it is worrying that many of our most popular films and series portray characters whose lifestyles implicitly promote excessive consumption: Carrie from Sex in the City (and the sequel And Just Like That) with her walk-in wardrobe, Lucifer with his gas guzzling cars, Emily in Paris with her different outfit each day. The current Green Stories video competition (deadline 31st May) addresses this head on by asking for a short video (<5 mins) that calls out those writers and producers who are giving us characters whose lifestyles are destroying our beautiful planet. We will choose those videos that have the potential to go viral and start a conversation on whether it is still okay to have characters who promote excessive consumption as an aspiration.
For me, watching fast cars and fast fashion on screen is as jarring as watching sexism in 70s sitcoms, and probably in ten years, when the mounting waste and emissions are impossible to ignore, it will be jarring for most people. But we don’t have ten years to waste. So please do engage with our Green Stories competitions, either by entering the video/writing competitions, or as a volunteer judge or by sharing across your networks, or by reading Habitat Man and giving a review. Together, maybe we can shift the cultural values of consumption at the heart of the climate crisis.
Denise Baden is a Professor of Sustainable Practice at Southampton Business School, University of Southampton. She is particularly keen in exploring innovative ways to maximise engagement and impact from research. For example Denise runs the Green Stories Writing competitions that challenge writers to embed green solutions in their stories see www.greenstories.org.uk. Current research interests include ways to motivate sustainable practices, positive role models and solutions-based approaches, climate change communication, and how to move beyond preaching to the converted. Her most recent research explores the use of fiction to promote green behaviours and she recently published an eco-themed rom-com Habitat Man, written as a fun way to share green solutions with a mainstream audience– see https://www.dabaden.com/habitat-man/
Climate: how to move beyond preaching to the converted… was originally published in Reset Narratives on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.